Volunteer returns to Melbourne with harrowing account of asylum seeker deaths.
A Melbourne lifeguard who volunteered to help asylum seekers crossing from Turkey to Lesvos says he saw 31 people drown this month because they were in international waters.
In the first month of 2016, Lesvos remains the primary gateway into Europe for the greatest migration surge since the Second World War.
More than 850,000 people, most fleeing conflict in Syria and Afghanistan, entered Greece by sea in 2015 according to the UNHCR, and already in 2016, another 35,000 asylum seekers have arrived – most through Lesvos – despite freezing winter temperatures and storms.
Earlier this month St Kilda Surf Lifesaving Club’s captain Simon Lewis spent nine days on the island as a volunteer in a joint venture between the Greek Lifeguards and the International Surf Lifesaving Association.
On his return he told reporters that his team helped save 517 people in 10 days but that he witnessed one horrific event that would remain with him forever.
Mr Lewis said he had to stand by helpless as 31 asylum seekers drowned beyond Greek waters because his team was not allowed to intervene.
“That’s the nature of lifesaving, we put ourselves in that situation to help prevent people from drowning and yet because it’s across the way in international water, you’re restricted and can’t actually do anything about it,” Mr Lewis said.
Unless asylum seeker boats are sinking, volunteers are unable to assist because helping people cross international borders illegally could see them charged with people smuggling.
One more heartbreaking case that Mr Lewis encountered was a mother trying to throw her child five metres to safety.
“We realised what she was about to do, you know, throw us the baby and so we had to pull away from her and put some distance between us. Just seeing her face, that heartbreak.”
Mr Lewis said he was aware of about 2,000 refugees who made the perilous journey to the area in the time he was there.
“These boats are the dodgiest. [They are] built like an inflatable boat, with a fake Chinese engine, they all have fake life jackets on.
“These people make the journey because they think it’s better than being on land, and that says everything to you [about] their situation, to try to get to freedom, because it’s a better option than anywhere else.”
Mr Lewis ran a crowdfunding campaign that’s raised more than $22,000 for a new rescue jet ski for local Greek lifeguards.
This week Greece responded furiously to proposals to modify the Schengen agreement, which would see the country’s borders sealed off from the rest of Europe.
EU interior ministers meeting in Amsterdam on Monday discussed moving the southern frontier of the passport-free travel zone, which includes most of the EU, to the north, and deploying joint police forces along the FYROM-Greece border.
European states are increasingly putting pressure on Greece to do more to limit the influx of migrants into Europe.
Greece’s migration minister Ioannis Mouzalas denounced the plans, calling it an “experiment” that would turn Greece into a “cemetery of souls”.